DAS: Rat Society
Note: This is the sixth of a handful of articles I began writing over two years ago, long before Ethereum was launched, when the current technology was little more than a few ideas a handful of people were discussing. They were originally posted on Quora, and I will be reposting them here, as some of the concepts discussed are becoming more relevant than ever, while some may simply be considered interesting in a historical context.
(Originally posted March 17, 2014)
In the late 1970’s a research scientist named Bruce Alexander had a revolutionary idea — What if addiction models were completely wrong? What if the reason rats in experiments chose to dose themselves repeatedly with drugs wasn’t because the drugs were so addictive, but instead the result of putting a social animal in a tiny prison cell and giving them only one outlet to feel good.
To test this they built a large cage with multiple rats — providing them with lots of areas for them to play and interact with each other. They called this area “rat park”. Rats which had never been addicted to drugs were mixed with rats that had been addicted, and they were all left to live and play in their happy little rat home, with infinite access to drugged sugar water.
So what happened? Did the rats all descend into drug-addled stupor? Well, no. The rats who had been addicted suffered the symptoms of withdrawal, choosing to socialize with the other rats, and overcome their addiction. The other rats who had never been addicted managed to avoid becoming addicted.
So this poses a question — if you were taken from your family and friends, put in a prison cell for an indeterminate period of time, and given a button that would feed yourself morphine, what do you think you would do? How long would it take you to give up on hope and give in to drug addiction?
The Human Animal
Human beings are tribal creatures. In the way that fish live in schools, lions live in prides, wolves live in packs — humans live in tribes. We are primates who have a limited scope for tracking other members of our group, but who possess the need for companionship and social support. Though we experience ourselves as individuals, most of us thrive in a system of tribal dynamics. This is the system in which we evolved, and the one which we are most suited for by default.
But we are also amazingly adaptive. So much so that we have created tools that have allowed us to pull ourselves out of the sticks and mud and create societies so large and complex that they would seem impossible only a few hundred years ago. We have mastered many aspects of our world that border on magic. I am typing on an object that once existed as ore. Somehow we have transitioned from a primate living in the jungle to the dominant species able to take rocks out of the ground and configure them in such a way that we can communicate with other members of our species all over the world. But we’re still tribal creatures.
We live in a world that celebrates the individual and the ego — we worship celebrities and the wealthy. We bow to those who dominate and conquer. But we’re miserable — we’re lonely and crowded at the same time, confused and misunderstood. We suffer depression, anxiety, and addiction at alarming rates. We place the blame on the individual or “chemical imbalances”. But never the social order.
But what if that’s the real problem? What if we’ve introduced all of these wonderful advancements only to destroy the structures that most of us need to thrive? After all — what is a newborn without its family? And what is a family without a tribe? What is a tribe without a culture of its own?
In a tribe, individuals cannot simply be disconnected egos fighting for dominance — they each have a role. Some are leaders, some are followers, some are defenders, some are loving, some are stoic, some are sensitive, and some are strong. Ideally, the individuals are distributed in such a way to make the tribe strong not only in the present, but also into the future, with genetic traits being expressed or suppressed as the internal and external pressures of the tribe shift.
The tribe is the protective shell which guards the individual from the harsh outer environment so that not only he or she can prevail, but so that the human species itself may persist. The individual exists for the benefit of tribe, and the tribe exists for the benefit of the individual. But the tribe is not temporally bound — its past exists as stories in the minds of its members — and it will persist indefinitely into the future dependent on how well it can respond to environmental pressures. The tribe lives with the knowledge that more will come, and it operates as such.
From the perspective of the human mind it is unnatural for us to be outside of a tribal group — for almost all of human history this meant danger and possibly death. The same goes for being around strangers, or being without fire. We have always had a deep engagement with and connection to our environment. After all, we are a product of it.
You and I are tribal creatures without a tribe. We are disconnected from our natural environment — our contact with fire and earth is limited, we are constantly around strangers, and we live in abstract worlds of earning wages and complex rituals. We are humans in cages of our own making. We have built a prison without knowing it — a huge, shiny prison, filled with new toys — media, drugs and sex. And we try it all. But it doesn’t fulfill us. No matter how much we consume we find ourselves empty, searching for more feeling, and more meaning.
To understand on a personal level how deeply we are connected to these things, you can look at your own connection to fire. In the rare instances that we are lucky enough to be near a beautiful, blazing flame, it is a challenge not to encircle it and stare deeply — mesmerized — trading stories about who we are and what we might be, connected to hundreds of thousands of years of our ancestors who depended on this fire to ensure light and life.
We are mashing down on every button we can find to get a bit of these new drugs — facebook, instagram, email, cell phones, TV, pornography, sex, and even drugs. None of it really satiates our desires. And it likely never will. But we can build a new world — a human-scale world. One that is built around what we actually are and what actually serves us. We can create a world that supports the family as well as the individual and the tribe in ways that we can understand.
Our technology has evolved much faster than our monkey-minds, but we can choose the path that we take. We can build support systems for each other, maximize the value of the individual without sacrificing the family or the tribal needs. We don’t have to give up our technology and flee back to the jungle, nor should we. We have a lot of wonderful technology that serves us and which will be necessary to ensure our long-term survival. But we don’t have to live in a prison of our own creation either.
The tools that we have created have lifted us up as well as broken us apart. Now it’s time to put the pieces back together and build the world in our image — so that we may live to our fullest potential, exploring worlds both inner and outer, present and future- as deeply as we can.